With U.S. theatre seasons being announced almost daily, things have been pretty lively around the old Twitter water cooler, with each successive announcement being immediately met with assessments at every level. How many female playwrights or directors? Is there a range of race and ethnicity among the artists? Is the season safe and predictable or adventurous and enticing? How many new plays, or actual premieres? How many dead writers? How many American playwrights? Any new musicals? The same old Shakespeare plays?
Thanks to social media, what once might have incited some e-mails and calls among friends in the business is now grist for the national mill, and the conversations swing their focus from city to city as rapidly as a new announcement is made. While some of the critiques may strike a more strident tone than I would personally adopt, I have to say that this is evidence of the developing national theatre conscience, under which news of upcoming work is not merely relayed but considered, from a macro rather than micro viewpoint, and not only by artistic directors at conferences or journalists in major media. People are keeping score.
I find this heartening and useful; last year I wrote a column for The Stage in which I declared my belief that the work on U.S. stages must better reflect U.S. society. But even as I applaud every recounting of a season being graded on a variety of balances (gender, race, vintage, etc.), and hope that it informs not only a national conversation but action and change at the local level, I want to strike a note of caution about one of the criteria being applied, specifically: why are so many theatres doing the same plays?
It’s easy if one lives in a major metropolitan area that’s rich in theatre to wonder why certain plays are receiving 10, 15 even 20 productions in a single season, typically works that have been seen in New York, whether on Broadway or off. We all see the list compiled each fall by TCG and American Theatre magazine; it generates stories about the most popular plays at U.S. theatres and usually mirrors the NYC fare of the past year or two. But at the same time, how many new plays remain unproduced, or receive a premiere and then don’t find their way to other stages? Have U.S. theatres become ever more safe and New York-centric?
What seems like a herd mentality has a more practical basis. It has been some time since plays have toured the country with any regularity (before the current War Horse, the last significant non-musical tour I recall was Roundabout’s Twelve Angry Men); the days when a play would run a season on Broadway and then tour for a year are long over. So while not-for-profit theatres may have been born in part to offer an alternative to commercial fare that was once available throughout the country, the life of plays has fallen almost exclusively to institutional companies.
Those companies tend to be fairly hyperlocal, drawing the majority of their audience from a 30 to 45 mile radius. This holds true even for larger cities, although they may benefit from some portion of a tourist trade. Generally, only “destination theatres” like Oregon Shakespeare Festival or Canada’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals can lay claim to a wider geographic spread. So while our overview of production may be all inclusive, the communities being served are less transient and more insular than that view.
On top of that, we can’t deny that theatre in New York has a range of media platforms which, even in our online era, few other cities can match. Consequently, a success in New York, or merely a New York production, gets a boost in the eyes of all concerned – theatre staffs, freelance artists, funders, audiences. And as a result, companies which are the major – or only – theatre in their community may feel duty bound to offer those “name” works in their seasons, because their audiences may not have any other opportunity to see them and also because their artistic leadership believes in the quality and value of that work. Of course, in some markets, theatres may compete for these “name” works, especially if they’re accompanied by the name Tony or Pulitzer.
This was brought home to me years ago during my time as managing director of Geva Theatre in Rochester NY. Geva was by far the largest theatre in Rochester; its peers were the former Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, 60 miles to the west, and Syracuse Stage, some 80 miles to the east. Each city had its own theatrical microclimate, with only the smallest sliver of die-hard theatre fans traveling among all three, an effort hampered by a snowfall season that ran from November to April.
Having come from Connecticut theatre, where a daytrip to New York was commonplace for professionals and audience alike, I wasn’t used to working on “last year’s hits” (though Geva’s seasons were certainly much more varied than that). In Connecticut at that time, doing work recently available in NYC was redundant. Frankly, what had been a source of pride at the places I’d worked had become a sign of elitism in my new setting, and I had to adjust my thinking accordingly – a mindset that has stayed with me as I ventured back into Connecticut and then to Manhattan.
This year, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop has been one of those frequently produced plays; on the east coast alone I know of productions in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington DC without even looking at schedules; I could just look at the Amtrak Northeast Corridor schedule for that rundown. Some might call this copycatting, especially after its Broadway run the prior season, but based upon reviews and reports of sales, The Mountaintop has been meaningful at each venue where it has appeared, presumably without overlapping audiences. And on a personal note, I have to say that even in a production compromised by a labor dispute, I found the Philadelphia incarnation to be even more affecting than the Broadway one.
Even as I lobby for artistic directors to be ever more committed to a wide range of essential criteria, I acknowledge the difficulty of their task. Aside from taking into account the questions I highlighted in the first paragraph, they also have to consider issues like budget, educational commitments, work that might prove especially meaningful to their audience or their community. Many have to do that with only five or six shows in a given season and it may not be possible to hit every desired mark.
A national survey across a range of criteria will certainly show us trends in production at the country’s institutional theatres, and I avidly support such an effort. But as we look theatre by theatre, we might allow, slightly, for what else could be happening at other theatres in the same city, and perhaps for how each theatre’s season does (or doesn’t) make improvements in diversity year over year. We also have to accept that in meeting one of many goals, a theatre might fall short on another; watching how they trend over time will be the most telling indicator. And while we need more and more platforms for truly new work, if a show with a New York imprimatur is a genuine part of a season striving towards meeting a range of goals, it is not necessarily a cop-out.
A final word for the theatres that face this new scrutiny, from playwright Stephen Spotswood during yesterday’s water cooler chat on Twitter: “Dear theatres whose seasons people are complaining about: This means we care and are invested in you. Start worrying when we stop.”